The woman standing next to me is talking on her cell phone. “I just…I just…I just want it…” She seems to be reaching for an idea, but in fact she isn’t. Everyone around her already knows what comes next: She wants “it” to “be over.” She has been repeating this simple mantra for five minutes in a pattern more mechanical than human; and frankly, even though I have no idea what “it” is, I’m beginning to agree that “it” should end.

Although her conversation is annoying, it is quite a bit less annoying than that other cell-phone conversation. You no doubt know what I’m referring to: It involves Cell Phone Man, chest puffed, standing tall, talking at top volume in a restaurant about the Big Money Deal. His tone is nearly always angry, ostensibly because the guy at the other end is lazy, stupid, or crooked. In actuality, though, the snarling allows him to play the role of poor little rich boy who demands respect from his real audience—those around him.

The behavior of Cell Phone Man explains why the cell phone has been slow to fulfill its promise. Upon its introduction, mobile-phone technology was touted by sociologists and inventors as a means of bringing us all closer together. Thanks to Cell Phone Man, though, the devices had the unforeseen effect not of opening communications but of breeding heavy negative vibes in movie theaters, fine restaurants, and churches.

But Cell Phone Man is a vanishing species these days. His main prop has lost all value as a status symbol, forcing him to retreat to his leased European car. The new template for cell-phone use is not the behavior of petty tyrants, able to reach out from the aisle of Giant to move men and money. Rather, it’s more like the Borg Collective—Star Trek’s alien empire, whose inhabitants are in constant contact with each other via prosthetic brain implants. Borg “drones”—capable of great evil in the aggregate—become despondent and a little pathetic when separated from their collective.

We, too, would be lost without our connective devices. Like the Borg’s implants, cell phones these days are being used everywhere at a low murmur, keeping our own collective intact.

To be sure, the devices persist in annoying many onlookers, even when Cell Phone Man isn’t doing the talking. David Brooks, writing in the New York Times Magazine last year, noticed that the nature of cell-phone calls had changed. His example of life narrated—”Hi, I’m sitting here, they’re closing the overheads, yes, we’ll take off in a minute…”—is typical of post-Cell Phone Man communication. Most cell calls these days fit this description. These ever-increasing conversations irk Brooks because they seem to disturb the king’s peace without adequate cause. However, Brooks is missing the point: Cell-phone calls seem trivial only if you aren’t party to them, as I learned via my own experience with the technology.

With the image of Cell Phone Man in mind, my wife, Jan, and I were apprehensive when we purchased our own matching cell phones last year. The reasons we did so were twofold. First, we had recently put our twins in day care—which to the uninitiated may seem like a simple matter of dropping the kids off and picking them up, but actually requires a coordinated effort of military proportions. Second, pay phones have succumbed to a dynamic commonly articulated by environmentalists: A species often becomes extinct as its ecological niche is taken over by another species. Once a convenient way to say, “Hi, it’s me. I’m running 10 minutes late—’bye,” the public phone is now a place that many of us wouldn’t recognize. My last attempts to use one all failed.

On one occasion, Jan and I were running late for a dinner reservation in Chicago and had the wrong address for the place we were to eat. We pulled into a McDonald’s to call the restaurant, only to find a woman in her early 20s conversing intently on the pay phone. Her glassy-eyed but supportive boyfriend warned us, “She’s talking to her mother in California for the first time in three years; this may take a while.”

The estranged daughter would no doubt have a deeper relationship with her mother if they were linked by cell phone. Wireless conversations tend to have an affectionate subtext. If, at the grocery, I call Jan to tell her that the broccoli doesn’t look good and maybe we should think about some other side dish, it is not because I am incapable of picking a vegetable on my own. Rather, it is one of the many trivial but essential considerations that all couples perform to affirm a partnership. If I am willing to listen to a friend narrate his trip down 18th Street, what I’m really saying is that I care enough about the relationship to listen to his stupefying blather. In turn, my friend trusts me with the unvarnished banality of his life. He has faith that I will accept him in real time and as he is, rather than in an enhanced highlight-reel version later on.

Our cell-phone conversations are like the periods of silence that only close friends or lovers can share. The only difference is that meaningless words have replaced meaningful silences.

The up-and-coming wave of cell-phone users won’t bother to reflect on the merits of constant cell-phone use, though. They will just dial up. In my student days, most of us regarded the amount of time spent in our bleak, undersized dorm rooms (when not actually in bed) to be a fair measure of our misspent academic careers. We were, as a group, difficult to get hold of, both for our parents and for each other.

Cell phones have changed all that. On the tiny Marymount campus where I taught last year, cell phones are used by students as an intramural walkie-talkie system, allowing gossip to spread across campus nearly instantaneously. The campus of the future will be built—not with a wall around it, as were the Ivys’—with a palisade of cell towers to accommodate the extra local traffic.

The cell phone is also breaking down the walls of the conference room, making the workplace a seamless flow of professional and social interactions. The same students who last year walked out of my lectures to take calls from pals will be walking out of tomorrow’s meetings and client presentations to listen to friends with messages no more urgent than that they made a stir-fry for dinner the night before. Validation will come not from an impressive job, but from the number of times that impressive job is interrupted by personal calls. The cell phone may prove to be the first new technology to actually shorten the work week.

Some too old or cranky to participate in the cell revolution will insist that I am missing the point. The blather of friends may be annealed with shared history, but the blather of strangers is not. It is the bystander who gets the worst part of the deal, according to this strain of thought.

Perhaps, but isn’t it better to be troubled by merely one end of a dumb conversation than both? Our tranquility is routinely interrupted by planes, cars, and other modern noisemakers that would have seemed intolerable a generation and a half ago. Does the cell phone really represent a worse infraction than these?

Of course, for a few, this is not good enough. A single call will always be an unnecessary detraction from blessed silence. However, I would encourage these tender souls to remember that there were boors long before there were cell phones. The phone itself is merely a prop; nobody needs a fancy walkie-talkie to make himself the center of attention in front of strangers. Those who have an exaggerated sense of self-importance—or perhaps a vivid imagination—have always been able to improvise.

On our last trip to New York before our daughters were born, Jan and I were enjoying an evening in Washington Square. A young man talking on a cell phone was loudly exhorting his buddy to “get down here—you’ve never seen so much pussy in your life!” As he got a little closer, we saw that he was not, in fact, talking on a cell phone but only a package of Little Debbie cakes. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Robert Meganck.

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